Politics / October 27, 2023

Those Who Say “a Cease-Fire Won’t Work” Are Wrong. Here’s Why.

There are four arguments people often make to support Israel’s bombing campaign, and all of them are hollow.

Adam Johnson

Edmontonians hold a one-hour silent candlelight vigil outside Town Hall, braving -1° C temperatures, to call for peace and an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East.

(Photo by Artur Widak / Getty Images)

Since Hamas attacked Southern Israel on October 7 and the Israeli government retaliated with a bombing campaign on Gaza, there have been growing calls across the globe for a cease-fire. Tens of millions of people—from protesters to human rights groups led by OxFam, to Amnesty International, Hollywood celebrities, and the majority of voters in both parties—have coalesced around a simple demand for Israel to stop its indiscriminate slaughter in Gaza. Obviously, this demand is the lowest of low floors. Calling for an end to the blockade, siege, and apartheid are of great import, but these issues cannot be addressed without, at least, giving the Palestinians in Gaza peace to bury their dead.

Recognizing the potential PR disaster among their domestic base in supporting what very well may be an ethnic cleansing campaign, if not a genocide, liberal electeds backing Israel’s incessant siege of Gaza have centered around four main talking points to deflect criticism from those who are demanding that their nominally progressive leaders end the bloodshed and call for a cease-fire. After all, polls show that 80 percent of Democrats now support a cease-fire, although over 90 percent of Democrats in Congress are not pushing for one. And the square has to be circled. The four talking points, and holes in their subsequent arguments, look like this:

1. “Biden has no control over what Israel does.” or “Biden is doing all he can to prevent civilian deaths.”

Over the past few days, partisan messaging hacks have claimed that if Biden—and by extension Democrats in Congress—called for a cease-fire, it would serve no functional purpose. Israel is going to do what it’s going to do regardless, these pundits claim, and thus the most effective way to “rein in” Israel and “reduce atrocities” is to “change things from the inside,” and stand by their side with respect to public comments and military, financial, and logistical support, but, “behind the scenes,” “push” Israel to reduce its aggregate number of war crimes.

This argument strains credulity for a number of reasons, the first being that this is a carbon copy of the playbook Democrats used to back Saudi war crimes in Yemen for years. (Trump, of course, also backed Saudi war crimes 100 percent, but because his brand was nakedly evil, there was no elaborate theater of “deep concern.”) The idea that the United States cannot meaningfully impact Israel’s decisions while it supplies it with tens of billions of dollars a year in cutting-edge weapons, logistical support, and money, as well as protection at the UN, is absurd on its face. If one doesn’t believe this, they can simply ask Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, who told The Times of Israel last week when asked about letting in humanitarian aid to Gaza, “The Americans insisted and we are not in a place where we can refuse them. We rely on them for planes and military equipment. What are we supposed to do? Tell them no?”

Even if one accepts the premise that the US doesn’t have unilateral control, the totality of its support for Israel—and a lack of that support’s impact on other “Western democracies”—would make the president’s publicly calling for a cease-fire almost certainly dispositive on Israel reducing its violent ambitions. It would radically alter the dynamic, which everyone knows on an intuitive level, but it’s important to maintain the fiction that the US is a passive observer to take the air out of the growing movement for a cease-fire.

The corollary to this is the idea that Biden, by maintaining public support, can somehow engage in harm reduction “behind the scenes.” This is mostly idealist claptrap that liberals are reverse engineering to make themselves feel better, wishcasting that one cannot possibly prove or disprove. Like President Nixon’s secret plan to win the Vietnam war, it’s a strategy of reducing civilian harm that’s entirely opaque and has no functional meaning. And no stakeholders in the affairs of Palestinians—from human rights groups, to peace activists, to the Palestinians themselves—are satisfied with this tortured formation of supposed positive influence. There’s no Palestinian organization that is calling for the continued bombing of Gaza while Biden, in theory, chides Netanyahu to “tone it down” behind the scenes. Many claimed that the delay of the ground invasion was due to Biden’s super-secret humanitarian lobbying, but as The New York Times made clear Wednesday, the delay had more to do with the fact that the Pentagon needed more time to prepare for regional war. This fact alone should make it clear that this is convenient sophistry: a made-up thing partisan messaging organs are settling on because it maintains the status quo of bombing while allowing them to sleep at night.

2. “Israel has a right to defend itself.”

This mindless cliché is the go-to posture for those who wish to wave away the mounting Palestinian body count and sirens going off about a potential genocide without the messiness of having to justify the specifics of what they’re defending. On its surface, it sounds both anodyne and sensible: Clearly a country has a “right to defend itself.” We are expected to accept this truism and move on.

But wait a second. What is entailed by said country’s theory of “defense” and its political and legal relationship to the population with whom it is going to war? In the abstract, most people would agree that any country has “a right to defend itself.” But Israel is an occupying military power on land that, under international law, isn’t its land. What’s happening in Gaza right now is not a traditional war in any meaningful sense. Israel’s pummeling of a civilian population counts as “defending itself” only under the most Bronze Age moral logic of collective punishment.

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Even if one accepts this logic—which, to be clear, I obviously do not—or, if you believe some high but arbitrary number of Gazans must die as payback for the October 7 attack by Hamas, it would seem Israel has surpassed that number a long time ago. If one thinks killing civilians is okay as long as in doing so some Hamas fighters may be killed, then they should say what ratio of death is acceptable: 1-to-10? 1-to100? 1-to-1000? Even if a person thinks lobbing bombs into a caged population is justified because of the high Israeli body count—which to be clear, one should not think—surely 5,000 dead civilians and more than 2,000 dead children is recompense enough.

No one realistically thinks Hamas will be “wiped out” by this war. So what is the end game here? And those that do think this, what in Israel’s plan leads them to believe this is achievable without killing tens of thousands of civilians? This is a point Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) made to her pro-Israel congressional colleague Ritchie Torres (D-NY) last week, when she asked her critics, quite appropriately, how many dead Palestinian children will be sufficient. “How many more killings is enough for you? Is it a thousand more? Two thousand more? Three thousand more? How many more Palestinian [deaths] would make you happy?”

It’s a genuine question: For liberals who say Israel has a “right” to kill as many civilians as it deems appropriate to “defeat Hamas,” clearly there has to be some upward limit, no? How many Palestinian children need to be snuffed out before the cure has become worse than the disease? Those defending the brutal bombing campaign should provide one, as this would reveal how fundamentally broken their moral logic is.

3. “Israel will stop bombing when Hamas releases the hostages and/or surrenders.”

What does this tough-guy comment mean exactly? It’s not clear, but it definitely sounds badass. In reality, it’s just a justification for collective punishment—which Israel is undoubtedly engaging in. By cutting off water, fuel, food, electricity, and the vast bulk of medical aid, Israel is running—according to everyone from the UN to Doctors Without Borders—a textbook case of collective punishment, essentially by its own admission.

Even if one believes Hamas’s capturing of hostages in an effort to swap for Palestinian hostages ought not be “rewarded” with a cessation of bombing in some abstract sense, this in no way justifies the use of collective punishment of 2.3 million Palestinians who had nothing to do with planning, funding, or carrying out the October 7 attack. To maintain the pretense of caring about civilians, Israeli officials have framed their call for the mass evacuation of over 1 million Palestinians from northern to southern Gaza as an attempt to reduce civilian death. But human rights experts have made clear that this is an impossible task, given that the south and routes to the south also get bombed and infirmed and hospitalized people cannot move. Far from painting it as a humanitarian gesture, Amnesty International insists that the order “may amount to war crimes.”

This is what gets lost in all the moralism and posturing of this line: It’s deflecting from the reality that Israel is seeking revenge on a civilian population, which is a war crime according to virtually all humanitarian and human rights groups “I want collective punishment to stop, but it can’t until [specific group] meets [specific demand]” is an argument for collective punishment—one that favors the starving, bombing, and killing via disease and thirst of tens of thousands of civilians until the combatant entity submits. Demanding that Hamas—an entity no one in the West has any control over—turn over hostages prior to ending the mass killing is meant to obscure that which we can control: the use of collective punishment as an instrument of war backed by Western leaders up to and including the president of the United States.

4. Simply avoiding the primary demand altogether and focusing on secondary and tertiary humanitarian demands

From former President Barack Obama to the Washington Post and New York Times editorial boards, to the vast majority of Democrats in Congress, the liberal establishment is coalescing around a “bomb nicer,” anti-cease-fire position that focuses instead on some variation of asking Israel to “turn on water” and “allow in aid” while ignoring the central, most important demands for Israel to stop killing children with bombs every 15 minutes. This permits liberals to maintain the appearance of humanitarianism and “deep concern” without the messiness of bucking the president and/or the pro-Israel lobby’s primary ask of allowing the IDF to continue its policies of forcible population transfers and nonstop aerial bombardment.

This “nuanced” approach is part and parcel with the typical good cop/bad cop routine played for an audience of Western liberals: Israel makes extremist demands; the United States pulls them back from a 10 to an 8.5, and then gets to present itself as a progressive and humane force. But, again, the primary demand right now from Palestinian civil society and human rights groups isn’t to continue bombing while allowing in some token aid and turning the water back on. It’s to stop that which is causing the vast majority of death and despair—the bombs raining down from above. But this is ignored in favor of around-the-margins humanitarian gestures that, while better than nothing, are being evoked to obscure the central demand right now.

Senator Bernie Sanders did a version of this on Wednesday night, when he ignored a letter signed by nearly 300 of his former staffers and campaign volunteers urging him to call for a cease-fire, and instead called for a “humanitarian pause”—a vague half-measure being floated by the White House that is ambiguous and, more importantly, not the demand Palestinian civil society, OxFam, Amnesty International, the UN, and the majority of countries on earth are actually making.

It’s also increasingly trendy for the “bomb nicer” set to call for a “humanitarian corridor”—something Palestinians themselves have been begging for as well, but with one extremely important qualifier: assurances that Palestinians will be let back into Gaza after the Israeli military campaign is complete, rather than left as refugees in a different country. A qualifier thus far ignored by the New York Times and Washington Post editorial boards, Barack Obama, the White House, and the vast bulk of liberal messaging around this issue. But it’s an essential point, because if they’re expelled from Palestinine forever, then this isn’t a humanitarian corridor but a vehicle for ethnic cleansing and an open-and-shut case of genocide, per prohibitions against forcible population transfers of militarily occupied peoples.

The demand right now for a cease-fire is virtually universal among those not committed to the most extreme and martial response to the October 7 attack. Too many Palestinans have already suffered, and aid groups estimate that right now, as you’re reading this, more than 800 Palestinian children are missing under the rubble. Combined with mounting evidence of genocidal intent on the part of Israeli officials and a widening regional war that could rope in Hezbollah, Iran, and the United States, the need for Israel to stop its assault on and siege of Gaza is morally obvious and manifest. It’s important that the public not lose sight of this, and not get distracted with hand waving, obfuscation, concern trolling, non-sequiturs, and brainless tough-guy posturing.

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson is a cohost of the podcast Citations Needed, and you can follow his work at The Column.

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